Heartbreaking news today for the Philadelphia punk rock community – and the music scene at large. Erik Petersen, veteran guitar-slinger and grizzled balladeer, founder of Mischief Brew, captain of the ship at Fistola Records and an eternally enthusiastic dude, has passed away.
The news has been swirling around social media for the past few hours, and was formally reported by Punknews earlier this afternoon. Details are scarce, but it seems Petersen passed away last night. The band’s final performance took place on Friday, July 8th, at The Trocadero opening for his close compatriots and longtime favorites World / Inferno Friendship Society. Mischief Brew was scheduled to perform in the Lehigh Valley tonight at the Square of Opposition / Double Decker Records anniversary; we wouldn’t be surprised if some sort of impromptu tribute bubbles up.
Beyond the whats and the whys and all that, Petersen’s passing is a major loss of a passionate and driven voice in our community. Onstage, he was sweaty and snarling, unhinged and intimidating, a guitar swinging from his shoulders and a jeff cap slipping from his head. As soon as he stepped offstage, he was brimming with cheer and that classic ear-to-ear Erik Petersen grin, quick with a handshake and a hug and a cup of coffee or a slug of whiskey (or both). He was community personified, he was a friend to all in the scene; to him, the scene was life, it was every aspect of his world since he was a teenager in the early 90s.
Petersen founded the West Chester punk outfit The Orphans in 1994, and fast developed a rabid following in a fertile East Coast network of bands that also included Plow United and Weston. Their signature tune was “The Government Stole My Germs CD,” and you can totally hear that revved-up and defiant Darby Crash attitude in it (as well as their entire Raise the Youth LP).
When The Orphans disbanded in 2000, Petersen dabbled in a more acoustic style of songwriting – more out of necessity than anything else. To paraphrase an interview he did with me in 2007, he had songs, he wanted to play them and it didn’t matter at that point if he had people to play with him or not.
The punk troubadour thing, though, was something Petersen was really really freaking good at. Fueled by his own late-20s fascination with Billy Bragg and Woody Guthrie, and aided along by a listening public rediscovering Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska during the aughties, Mischief Brew took on a life of its own. Petersen quickly saw it as a means to be a musician in whatever setting best suited him. If it was easier to do a run of shows acoustic, he’d play acoustic; if the situation allowed for a band, he’d bring in collaborators like bassist Shawn St. Clair, his brother Christopher on drums, percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Chris “Doc” Kulp (Mischief Brew’s original drummer), or accordion player Franz Nicolay (of The Hold Steady and World / Inferno) and more.